Hellnotes: First off, congratulations on the publication of your first novel! We’ll get the basics out of the way up front, so what can you tell us about A Hawk in the Woods?
Carrie Laben: A Hawk in the Woods is the story of the Waite sisters, twin witches with a complicated relationship and tangled family history. When one sister, Abby, discovers that she has Stage 4 cancer, she decides to break her twin Martha out of jail and they go on a road trip that forces them to confront the past and figure out the future, if indeed there’s going to be a future for them… it’s a lot of things, but at the core it’s the story of what two very out-of-the-ordinary people will do to survive.
HN: From the description, it sounds like A Hawk in the Woods combines and remixes several classic genre elements into something unique. What was your inspiration behind the novel? Since this is your first novel, is this particular story one you’ve been mulling over for a while, or did it move quickly from spark to page?
CL: Lovecraft fans will have noticed the sisters’ family name, of course, and there’s a strong thread of folk horror in this story as well. While I was writing this, I basically adopted Abby’s strategy and didn’t hesitate to use every tool at my disposal.
My initial inspiration was a series of news articles I read as a kid that made a strong impression on me – I can’t say more about that, as it gives away a big chunk of the ending – and the folk song “The Cruel Mother,” which features throughout the novel. I started work about ten years ago – the early scene of Abby driving through her old stomping grounds on the way to the prison is virtually unchanged from the first draft – but there were stops and starts in the development. Most significantly, I took three years right in the middle of writing this to switch gears and get an MFA in creative nonfiction. Hopefully, the next novel will be a bit more efficient.
HN: I know you’ve already talked about “the scariest part” elsewhere, but could you maybe give our readers a brief excerpt from A Hawk in the Woods? Something to whet their appetites, entice them, or just show off your chops.
CL: Sure! Here’s a short passage where Abby digs up her grandfather’s skull, for… reasons.
The root had grown over the skull, but not into it. She supposed it hasn’t had enough time, though what did she know about how fast roots grow? No more than Mom, and Mom obviously didn’t know enough or she would have buried the old man deeper. Too deep for Abby to ever find.
She worked the scraper down until it hit a pebble. Pried the pebble out and threw it aside. And again. And again. If the summer had been a little drier, if the ground right here wasn’t soft, it would have been impossible. As it was, there were an awful damn lot of pebbles for such swampy ground. Every one she hit with the scraper jarred her arm and slowed her down. Chunks of quartz, mostly, some granite, even a fossil clam. She stuck a few in her shirt pocket, just in case. She was so close—one side of the skull was completely free, and if she could just get it loose on the other side it was hers.
She found a piece of slate, the kind laced with iron oxide, in her way. Sweat trickled down the back of her neck as she worked the blade of the scraper under it, pried hard—and then fell back, her hand stinging and the snapped-off handle slipping out of her grasp.
“Damnit!” She would have sucked her finger—it was bleeding where the sharp edge of the plastic caught it—but that seemed like a good way to catch worms. The blade of the scraper stuck out of the mud, taunting her. She pulled it out and threw it as far as she could.
Her nails wouldn’t have to be nice when this was over, but the habit of taking care of them was hard to break now. She shuddered as she pushed her fingers into the dirt, but she did it. Shuddered and scraped at the slate until she found the edge and pulled it loose. Shuddered and worked her way beneath the skull.
Her efforts must have loosened it; it came up right away. She rocked back, but didn’t fall this time, and it was in her hands. The right incisor was missing, as it should be.
HN: While we’re talking about your novel today, you’re also an accomplished short story writer and an essayist. What was it like making the transition from these other forms to the novel, and do you find that having worked in them changed how you approached the novel? Did you view working on a book length project as a sort of “next step” as a writer, or was it that this particular story needed to be a novel?
CL: Like a lot of debut novelists, this isn’t actually my first novel; I have three trunked/unfinished novel-length projects under my belt as well, and two of them date from before I started publishing short fiction. Each project just has a length for me. Occasionally someone will suggest expanding one of my short stories into a book or pulling a piece of a novel out to publish on its own, but I haven’t had much luck with that. I have an idea, and it takes as many words as it takes. The biggest challenge in the novel as opposed to shorter pieces, for me, was pacing – I tend to write short and put it all out there, and it turns out that 60,000 words isn’t enough novel for the present market, so I had to work to expand it.
HN: I found myself intrigued by a particular interview you had in Thinking Horror where you answered the question “Why horror?” with “Because we’re made of meat and we’re gonna have to deal with it somehow!” This is, of course, very true, but could you tell a little more about the appeal of the tension between the “spirit” and the “sausage casing” (as you aptly put it)? Does this theme appear in A Hawk in the Woods?
CL: Oh absolutely! It’s no spoiler if you’re familiar with the Waite family’s earlier appearance in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep;” one of their nasty habits is stealing other people’s bodies in the attempt to make their own spirits immortal. This is a profound affront to the natural order of things for most people encased in meat, where one generation follows on and replaces another, and part of aging is letting go of the notion that you own the future. Fear of mortality is obviously Abby’s motivator, but it’s also the driving force behind many of the other characters as well. And not just fear of physical mortality but the fear of becoming irrelevant, being cast aside, even the fear of not being able to keep up with technology.
HN: Speaking of themes, your story “Postcards from Natalie” (winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award) is also about the bond between families. Do you find yourself drawn to circle the similar themes or ideas in different works and, if so, does that feel more like a process of trying to uncover a particular thing or like making a map?
CL: Last year I actually sat down and made a chart of all the plot-driving relationships in my fiction to that point, and not only did family relationships far outrank any other, bonds between sisters specifically had a slight edge over any other type. So it’s definitely a thing with me! I’m the oldest of seven children, so I think that’s just where most of my material is – there’s hardly any kind of tension, from codependent love to outright hostility, that I can’t put in that form. To a lesser degree I feel like sibling relationships are usually slightly less emphasized in horror than romantic and parent-child relationships, so there’s a little more opportunity to do something fresh.
HN: We’re always curious to peel back the outer layers and ask about influences, but let’s approach that from a few different ways. Who do you view as your influences and do you see traces of them in this book? Are there any other creators that you consider particularly important, but that readers might be surprised to find out about?
CL: Leaving aside Lovecraft, which is obvious (besides “The Thing on the Doorstep,” the first chapter contains a literal shout-out to “The Dunwich Horror”), this book was very influenced by Shirley Jackson. Especially We Have Always Lived In the Castle, which at the end of the day may still be the most frightening novel I have ever read. More broadly, Katherine Dunn and Robert Anton Wilson are both authors I read when I was in high school, and they gave me faith that I could be as weird as I wanted and still get published – though I still don’t think I’ve gotten as weird as I can. Hawk probably owes a bit to the enmeshed and isolated and horrific family in Dunn’s Geek Love, but I don’t think most people would see that right off the bat.
Another probably-invisible influence is Whitley Strieber’s Communion. That one put a powerful scare in me when I was about 14, an experience I think was shared by a lot of people my age! There are no space aliens in Hawk, but the fear that something could come for you while you were defenseless and leave you with no memory of what happened plays an important role in the book.
HN: Along those lines, what sort of materials (books, stories, instruction manuals, grimoires) are you reading right now? Who are some currently working authors that you enjoy, either who write close to your own work or far afield?
CL: Oh man, my to-be-read pile right now is out of control (which makes me different than no author ever, I’m betting). I’m currently in the middle of Violet LeVoit’s Scarstruck – she’s an author who deals with almost entirely different material than mine, and sometimes I find her rather terrifying, but I love her sensibility. On the nonfiction front, I’m about to start Victorian Holocausts by Mike Davis, which is about how colonial elites used the conditions created by global climate patterns like El Nino to starve their subjects and consolidate their power. So also pretty horrific.
Other writers whose work I always make sure to check out include Nick Mamatas and Paul Tremblay, Gabino Iglesias, S. P. Miskowski, Victor LaValle, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and outside the horror genre Megan Abbott, Cara Hoffman, and the nonfiction writers Scott Weidensaul and Joel Greenberg.
HN: One particularly intriguing note in your bio is that you are a birder — as in one who birds (or bird watches, maybe). What is it about that particular activity that appeals to you? Is there such thing as a recognizable “birder temperament,” and do you think you possess it? Do you see that reflected in your work?
CL: Birders are definitely a subset of the class “nerd” – they care about minutia, about completeness, they can be competitive with their knowledge, etc. For me, the compelling thing about birding is that it plays to my desire to notice the telling detail – sometimes the difference between one species and another is down to a few millimeters of beak length or whether the white patch extends above the eye or not. That kind of telling detail is also central to my writing.
On the other hand, birding can also be a meditative activity – walking through the woods, or watching the sea for hours – and one that isn’t necessarily verbal, which makes for a nice change from working with words non-stop.
HN: Finally, what’s coming up next for you? In addition to any scheduled releases and events, what sort of nebulous projects and ideas do see beginning to take shape?
CL: I’m at work on two book projects right now – a collection of essays about birding and urban ecology, and a new novel that updates Machen’s The Great God Pan. Though they’re very different projects, both grapple with the specter of oncoming environmental collapse – which is, after all, the most relevant horror of our time.
Over the coming month I’ll be sequestered away at Brush Creek, an artist’s residency in Wyoming, where I hope to complete a draft of the essay collection. So that’s the main thing on my mind right now.
Carrie Laben is the author of the novel A Hawk in the Woods, published by Word Horde. Her work has also appeared in such venues as Apex, Birding, The Dark, Electric Literature, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs, as well as many anthologies. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for the essay “The Wrong Place.” She has been a MacDowell Fellow and a resident at the Anne LaBastille Memorial Residency and Brush Creek. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and now resides in Queens.
A Hawk in the Woods: https://wordhorde.com/books/a-hawk-in-the-woods/